Like a sinking derelict, the prow of the Oregon Buttes thrusts up from the Wyoming high desert, straining, against all possibility, for safe harbor. None in sight. The pale green sea of sage and greasewood extends forever in all directions, with only the faint shapes of other shipwrecks to break the nullity of itContinental Peak, Steamboat Mountain, the distant serrations of the Wind River Range.
And we in our little skiff of a vehicle nose around the buttes. My partner is the carefree navigator and Im the nervous driver: fearful of narrow, deep-rutted dirt roads that will turn to bentonite glue at the touch of a raindrop; paranoid that this leviathan butte might at any moment groan and roll over on us, driving us down among the crocodiles fossilized here in ancient lake beds.
If it happens, there will be no one around to retrieve us. Though its Fourth of July weekend, the Red Desert is not just uncrowded, its completely unpeopled. Im surprised. Pretty pictures of this desert wilderness have lately run in magazines and newspapers from coast to coast. Thousands of people have signed petitions advocating protection for its wildlife, its water, and its stark landscape.
"Why arent they here?" I ask, pulling the steering wheel uselessly uphill against the tilt, "all those people who love this place?"
"All those people who could winch you out of a ditch," she answers, with unseemly insight. "Weve got it all to ourselves."
Well, not exactly. Critters and plants that are increasingly rare seem to be everywhere in this countryprairie dogs, sage grouse, stands of alkali wild rye and large-fruited bladderpod, ferruginous hawks and mountain plovers, and the big wildlife celebrities: pronghorn, feral horses, and desert elk.
There are also other, less attractive signs of life that arrived fairly recently but will leave marks of archaeological duration: surveyor stakes, oil and gas drilling pads, and roads.
This is inhospitable country, and some who hunt it, dig for jade in it, and run cattle on it express appreciation when someone drags a blade through the sagebrush to improve access. Many tourists like nice smooth roads too, which makes you worry about proposals to create a park here, an idea that has been popping up for nearly a century. For now, though, the road we are on, one that did not exactly match any of the dotted lines on our map, has just come to an end on the bank of a dry wash. The plain sweeps gently upward toward the butte, like a rug pulled by the gnarly fingers of sandstone that terrace out from the mountain. The sun glints in the bright green Mohawk of trees atop the butte, and probes between those red sandstone fingers. The sun is going down and Im a little unsure just where we are.
"Great place to camp," I say decisively.
There is at least the rather obvious landmark of the Oregon Buttes towering above us, which got their name from the pioneers who used them to guide themselves over a broad flat spot in the Continental Divide. Just south of the Wind River Range and the Sweetwater River, the Divide actually splits, creating a 2.5-million-acre basin from which no moisture escapesnot that there is much. That basin is only part of the Red Desert, the boundaries of which waver in the eyes of different beholders. By the largest measure, the "greater" Red Desert encompasses much of southwest Wyomings Green River Basin and stretches south into Colorado, tallying 8 million acres.
Most of it is public land, run by the Bureau of Land Management. And most of it is targeted by the Bush administration for rapid development of natural gas, which pools in abundance beneath the sandy surface, and coalbed methane found in coal seams.
The collision between this extraordinary landscape and the nations ravenous appetite for fossil fuel has made the Red Desert something of a darling to conservationists. Currently, much attention is focused on the Jack Morrow Hills, a 622,000-acre plot south of our campsite that includes such wonders as the Killpecker Sand Dunes (the largest moving dunes in North America), the towering Boars Tusk (a solitary volcanic spire), and Steamboat Mountain, a favorite haunt of those desert elk. The BLM is considering proposals for hundreds more drilling rigs in the Jack Morrow Hills, and has persisted despite strong public support for a "citizens alternative" that would limit drilling to protect everything from mule deer winter range to petroglyphs.
But the Jack Morrow Hills are only a small part of development plans in the Red Desert and southwest Wyoming; the fragmentation of the deserts management into various BLM districts makes it hard to see the cumulative force of energy development thats storming the area. To the south, for instance, below Interstate 80, there are plans for a big coalbed methane project on the steep Atlantic Rim; to the north and west the rigs are thickening in the Jonah Field, a giant natural-gas plot that sits in the path of antelope and mule deer trying to journey southon the longest active migration route in the continental United Statesto their historic winter range. The elk used to make that journey too, but no more: Though built to travel, they have been forced to become year-round desert elk.
We set our tent on a small bench facing east, beneath a canopy of stars so dense and close we can imagine we are seeing the curve of the universe. There is a bristling breeze and animal stirrings in the wash below us. We are grateful that those who defend the Red Desert have not all chosen to visit on the same weekend. A few sips from a flask and I declare my intent to end my own migrations and just hide out, like the friend who came here alone on an extended journey with only a string of goats. I am reminded by my partner that the friend emergedafter dust storms, lightning strikes, and an attack by pronghorn that sounded like a hallucinationtalking to his goats.
We spent the next day exploring canyons and climbing up a wash to the plateau on the south side of the butte. We saw no elk, but we saw sign of elk. We saw no people, and no sign of people. How, I wonder, do you preserve that?
A Growing Web of Oil and Gas Wells at Wyomings Jonah Field Satellite images show the impact of oil and gas development at the Jonah Natural Gas Field in southwest Wyomings Green River Basin. The project straddles one of the nations longest big-game migration routes. In December, the Bush administration proposed allowing 3,100 new wells here. For more information, go to the Upper Green River Valley Coalition Web site at www.uppergreen.org.
The Red Desert region embraces some 8 million acres of high-elevation desert and weather-beaten badlands, mostly in southwest Wyoming. Among the last great undeveloped tracts in the United States, it supports one of the countrys largest concentrations of raptors and one of its few desert elk herds.
Threats The Bush administration has targeted the region for more than 12,000 oil and gas wells by the year 2010.
More Information Contact Friends of the Red Desert, P.O. Box 1163, Lander, WY 82520; on the Web at www.reddesert.org.
Geoffrey OGara is author of What You See in Clear Water: Life on the Wind River Reservation (Knopf, 2000) and A Long Road Home: In the Footsteps of the WPA Writers (Houghton Mifflin, 1990).